The 70th anniversary of the first use in warfare of mankind’s most terrible weapon is a reminder not only of how far winners will sometimes go to rewrite history, but how an instance of mass murder can be recast as an act that served the greater good. As well as being a time for reflection and commemoration, it behoves all of us with humanitarian instincts and respect for historical memory to counter the spurious justifications for the use of nuclear weapons at the end of the Second World War. Of all history’s atrocities, the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the ones that have been most successfully accompanied by egregious apologetics, grotesque sanitising, and deplorable distortion of the historical record. One of the most dubious claims, partly founded in racist dehumanisation, is that the bombs were justified because they saved lives.
This contention has been repeated with such adamant frequency that it is uncontroversial in many countries, particularly the United States, which perpetrated the deed. The Second World War offers history’s most damning instances of the dangers of jingoistic concerns overriding decency and common humanity. The most obvious and reprehensible cases involve the country that started the war. But also implicated is the country that finished it. It requires an unusual depravity of the mind to be a knowing – for it needs acknowledging that many are unknowing – defender of the war crimes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But unlike most other war crimes in history, this one has been normalised and sanitised like few others, in large measure because the winner was the culprit.
By the summer of 1945, Japan was a defeated nation, its navy and air force broken, and with the Red Army ready to attack across the Manchurian border. It was widely believed by all sides that Japan was on the verge of collapse in the wake of devastating bombing campaigns throughout the spring and summer of 1945. And because Japan’s secret codes had been broken, American officials were aware that Japan’s leaders were seeking to end the war. Some peace overtures were even made in the months before the nuclear bombings. A sticking point was the demand for “unconditional surrender”, though Japan’s sole quibble in that regard concerned the fate of the Emperor, whose integrity they wanted to preserve. It was this demand which prolonged the war over that summer, wholly unnecessary given that the Emperor was eventually retained in his position following Japan’s surrender. Are we seriously expected to believe that a nuclear attack in August, with Japan encircled by two mighty enemies (Russia entered the war an August 8), and with US air and sea dominance now total, was the only alternative to a bloody ground invasion that could not have begun for another three months?
It certainly wasn’t believed by an array of top military officials who questioned the necessity of the atomic bomb. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, a future president, had “grave misgivings” after being informed in mid-July 1945 by Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson that a decision had been made to use the atomic bomb, and said he believed a nuclear attack was “no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives”. Eisenhower also said:
“The Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing … I hated to see our country be the first to use such a weapon”.
Admiral William D. Leahy, Chief of Staff to presidents Roosevelt and Truman, was to comment:
It is my opinion that the use of the barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan … The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons … My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.
Admiral Chester W. Nimitz was another dissenter, and even supposedly hawkish figures including General Curtis LeMay and General Douglas MacArthur questioned the necessity of the nuclear attacks. And the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, in its 1946 report, categorically rejected the chief justifications offered for the attacks:
“The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs did not defeat Japan, nor by the testimony of the enemy leaders who ended the war did they persuade Japan to accept unconditional surrender. The Emperor, the Lord Privy Seal, the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, and the Navy Minister had decided as early as May of 1945 that the war should be ended even if it meant acceptance of defeat on allied terms …
“Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey’s opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945 and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945 [the date of the planned American invasion], Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.”
It is very reasonable to assert that the war would most likely have ended before the November invasion target date once the Russians entered. Time could have been given to see if the Russian attack was successful. They had three months before an American land invasion could have been ready, after all. This inevitably leads to speculation about the real reasons for the nuclear attacks, and whether they did in fact represent the beginning of the Cold War, the objective being to demonstrate this terrifying weapon to a Soviet Union that was already being viewed as a deadly rival so soon after the Yalta and Potsdam conferences. If that is the case, it could be argued that it was an unwise move in that the Soviet Union was motivated to develop its own nuclear weapons more rapidly than it otherwise might have done.
But that is an argument for historians to chew over. Returning to the moral question, the so-called Greatest Generation was apparently very comfortable with the mass killing of civilians, but one superior thing about the current generation is that we tend to reject this manner of conducting war. There is no place for complacency in contemplating nuclear conflict, however. When reflecting on Hiroshima and Nagasaki today, we must keep two things in mind. Not only did those bombs violate the principles of just war, they set a most chilling and dangerous precedent for mankind.